The leader of Birmingham City Council set himself the highest possible standards when launching plans for a £193 million civic library. The completed building, Mike Whitby declared, would not just be a leader in Europe, but the best in the world.
All credit to Coun Whitby for aiming high, but pledges on such a scale tend to backfire if they are later exposed as hyperbole.
It is impossible to say how much better the new building will be than the Central Library, or as critics would ask, whether the Centenary Square library will be any better than a refurbished and extended Central Library might be at significantly less cost to the public purse. The reason for the uncertainty lies in the fact that the design for the new building, and exactly what it will contain, is not yet fully known even though the doors are to open in five years' time.
A powerful theme driving this project from the very beginning has been the need to create exhibition space in order to allow for permanent display of the city's archive material, which includes the world-famous Shakespeare collection and the papers left by scientists and engineers Boulton and Watt. People who took the promise of the best in the world at face value might be surprised to learn that an initial estimate of 1,200 sq ms of exhibition space has been halved, giving the new library barely more room to display the city's treasures than the tiny Ikon Galley.
Does this matter? Not at all, according to assistant director of culture Brian Gambles, who suggests rather sweepingly that the public appetite for exhibitions may not be as great as is popularly supposed. He also warns, and this is perhaps more to the point, about the cost of putting on large-scale exhibitions which he says would be the responsibility of no more than five dedicated staff.
All of this hands more ammunition to some members of the library review group who fear the council leadership is approaching the Centenary Square project from the wrong direction, with possibly disastrous consequences. Rather than first deciding how big a library should be and what it should contain, they contend, Coun Whitby and his colleagues have chosen a smallish, but prominent, site and decreed that something be designed to fit the available land.
The critics must be proved wrong, if the world's best claim is to stand.